Dante, or Three Things to Love About the Divine Comedy

Blogger’s Note: Several years ago, I agreed to my friend Jacqui’s challenge to read 15 Classics in 15 Weeks. I continue to press forward, this being number 13 of 15, and at this point 15 Classics in 15 Years seems quite doable…

Late last week I finished reading Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy in its entirety for the first time. I had read excerpts for different classes over the years, and have read a little about the great work. The book itself was something of a pilgrimage through hell, purgatory, and heaven. This is my least favorite of the thirteen classics I’ve read so far as part of this challenge, and was tough sledding at times. Nevertheless, I do agree that this is a great literary work and worth the effort to complete at least once.

Without further ado, Three Things to Love about Dante’s Divine Comedy:

  • The Ambition. Dante the poet takes us on a journey through the Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradisio (Heaven) with Dante the Pilgrim in order that the fictional Dante may change his ways and be saved. Each of these three journeys are told in verse, thirty-three cantos each, with each canto approximately 140 to 150 lines long. Along the way he meets ancient and more recent historical figures, who comment and prophesy on the political and religious turmoil of Dante’s time and place, along with sharing their own experience in the world and in the afterlife. The running commentary on the political machinations and rivalries in Dante’s home was the least interesting aspect of the book for me, but it is nonetheless impressive how much he weaves into this ambitious work.
  • The Creativity. The denizens of Hell and Purgatory, in particular, suffer in hundreds of ways peculiar to their specific sins and attachments. Dante’s Hell is hellish, disgusting and terrifying at times, culminating in an immense figure of Satan, not surrounded by flame, but eternally frozen in ice, suffering for his own sins. The journey through Purgatory is hopeful, but not easy, as imperfect souls labor to let go of those earthly things that weigh them down. Heaven, to me, was actually the least interesting of the three, in part due to the poet’s continued insistence that the beauty of the place was beyond his words and ability — but persevering to the end, to full union with God in the beatific vision, has its rewards. The last few cantos are lovely.
  • The Deep Belief. This, to me, is the greatest aspect of Dante’s masterpiece: the depth of theology, of faith, of true belief. Dante believes in the reality of Hell, and he puts people he loved in this world in that place of torment because of their sins. He peoples his poems with friends, contemporaries, nobles, and popes, explaining how and why each fell or rose, and when Dante the Pilgrim is asked to testify to his own faith, the lines resonate as the poet’s own sincere profession. Who knows how accurate a portrayal of the afterlife these poems are, but Dante gives us much to contemplate as we navigate this world.

I have begun number fourteen of fifteen classics, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, with that great opening line: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It is a long book, but engaging— I hope to be done within the month!

Book Break: The Great Divorce

I mentioned in an earlier post that I had a profound Good Friday, but that was only half the story. The other half of the story is that, early that Friday morning, I sought out some spiritual reading for the day, and wound up with a new top-five favorite book: C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce.

Of course, when reading spiritually, the Bible is always a good place to start, and I’m also making slow but steady progress through Dante’s Divine Comedy a canto or two a day. But I wanted something fresh, something I could possibly read in a day, and something related to the penitential character of Good Friday and the great saving act of our Lord.

On a hunch, I took C.S, Lewis’s The Great Divorce from the bookshelf. I have great regard for Lewis as a writer and had heard good things about the book, particularly from my good friend Angie at Take Time for Him.

Lewis had me hooked from the preface, which begins by explaining the title of his fantasy:

BLAKE WROTE the Marriage of Heaven and Hell. If I have written of their Divorce, this is not because I think myself a fit antagonist for so great a genius, nor even because I feel at all sure that I know what he meant. But in some sense or other the attempt to make that marriage is perennial. The attempt is based on the belief that reality never presents us with an absolutely unavoidable “either-or”; that, granted skill and patience and (above all) time enough, some way of embracing both alternatives can always be found; that mere development or adjustment or refinement will somehow turn evil into good without our being called on for a final and total rejection of anything we should like to retain.

The book begins with our narrator in line at a bus stop in a grey and gloomy town, surrounded by people he doesn’t know and wouldn’t want to — unsure of where he is or where he’s going. It unfolds like Dante’s Divine Comedy in modern miniature: a pilgrim’s journey from hell to the edge of heaven in just 128 pages. I’m reading Dante now, too, canto by canto, and it is powerful in its way, but this held my attention from the preface to the end, with every word relevant to this sinner and this sinful time. Lewis articulates with poetic beauty and unflinching honesty the glory of God and his angels and saints, the pain of detaching from this world, and the stubbornness, the grasping, the pride and distrust that keep even “good” people from choosing God and reaching Heaven.

The book challenges the reader particularly on the Greatest Commandment: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). On this point, Dante provides an unintended summary (being some seven centuries older) which, as providence would have it, I read over lunch on Easter Monday. In Purgatorio, Canto IX, Lines 127-132, he writes the words of the angel guarding the gates of Purgatory proper:

“I hold these keys from Peter, who advised
‘Admit to many, rather than too few,
if they but cast themselves before your feet.'” 
Then pushing back the portal’s holy door,
“Enter,” he said to us, “but first be warned;
to look back means to go back out again.”

We sin when we put anything — even the blessings of life on this good Earth — ahead of loving and seeking God. Pilgrim after pilgrim turns his or her back on Heaven because the cost of entry is too high: the cost of admitting that they are mere creatures and of letting go of their earthly pleasures, passions, and prejudices. They want Heaven on their own terms and choose Hell to feel like they have some say in the matter. They cannot stand the humiliation of grace as an unmerited gift.

It is a powerful book: perhaps tied at this moment with Steinbeck’s East of Eden as my favorite of all time (although Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings (which I still need to review as an adult) and Sigrid Unset’s Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy are right up there, too!) It paints a stark and revealing picture of how far so many of us have to go to be purged of all sin. So I will end this post with Lewis’s words from the Preface, on a hopeful note:

I do not think that all who choose wrong roads perish; but their rescue consists in being put back on the right road. A wrong sum can be put right: but only by going back till you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on. Evil can be undone, but it cannot “develop” into good. Time does not heal it. The spell must be unwound, bit by bit, “with backward mutters of dissevering power”– or else not. It is still “either-or.” If we insist on keeping Hell (or even earth) we shall not see Heaven: if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell. I believe, to be sure, that any man who reaches Heaven will find that what he abandoned (even in plucking out his right eye) was precisely nothing: that the kernel of what he was really seeking even in his most depraved wishes will be there, beyond expectation, waiting for him in “the High Countries.”

The Great Divorce. Find it. Read it.

Book Break: Holy Week by Jerzy Andrzejewski

Somewhere along the line these past few years I picked up an English translation of the short novel Holy Week by Polish author Jerzy Andrzejewski. I bought it knowing almost nothing about the book or the author, because I used to study Polish in college, as a tribute to my maternal roots, and because Polish literature can be hard to come by. Andrzejewski is perhaps best know for his novel Ashes and Diamonds, which was turned into a well-known Polish film of the same name by Andrzej Wajda, who has also made a film version of Holy Week. I saw the movie version of Ashes and Diamonds in college and liked it, so I took a chance on the book.

The novel tells the story on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the tragic burning of the ghetto and elimination of Warsaw’s Jews during the days leading up to Easter of 1943 — from the perspective of a handful of Poles whose lives are variously entangled with each other’s and with a young Jewish woman trying to evade the Nazis and their Polish informers.

It has stood on my shelf for a at least two Holy Weeks now, until this past Tuesday, when I took it up on a whim. It is a short novel — just 125 pages — with four chapters covering each day from Tuesday to Good Friday. I took this as a sign and read it a chapter a day, finishing the book’s final chapter this morning.

This is a provocative book that reads a bit like watching a play. The Polish characters reflect the range of Polish responses to the uprising and “liquidation” of the Jewish inhabitants. Most display some level of antisemitism, ranging from mealy-mouthed rationalization of the it’s-complicated variety to thankfulness that the hated Nazis are nevertheless solving the Poles’ “Jewish problem” for them. Only three adult characters avoid being painted with this brush: 
  • Devout Catholic wife and expecting mother Anna, whose unquestioning morality enables her to help her husband’s Jewish friend even as her faith in God and her husband begins to waver;
  • Idealistic and aggressive Julek, who insists upon doing what he little he can to aid the Jewish uprising and points out others’ equivocations: “I know perfectly well what it means to suit one’s anti-Semitism to one’s tastes. We merely find the so-called methods distasteful. The point is there shouldn’t be any methods in the first place!”; and
  • Well-to-do landlord Zamojski, who at least avoids aiding the the anti-Semites, but who may himself be concealing his Jewish heritage.
The juxtaposition of Irena’s struggle to survive and the ever-present cloud of smoke and sounds of gunfire and explosions from the ghetto against the backdrop of Polish Christians enjoying spring and preparing for the Easter holiday as best they can lends the novel an almost surreal atmosphere. The story was written and published quickly and courageously in 1945, and was not popular among Poles, whose nerves were too raw and wounds were too fresh, and who found the various expressions of racism and nationalism rang uncomfortably true. Even today, this book pricks the conscience, making the reader reevaluate how he or she perceives others and wishes to be perceived — and what circumstances might limit their charity on behalf of a neighbor who is unlike themselves.
The book reads like an English translation from the original Polish — certain expressions do not ring true to American ears, but make sense in the Polish context — and the story will end too abruptly (and without sufficient resolution) for some tastes. Still, it is a quick and thought-provoking read. If you are interested, it is available through the Great River Regional Library in St. Michael, or you can borrow my copy.

Undset, or Three Things to Love About the Kristin Lavransdatter Trilogy


Blogger’s Note: Several years ago, I agreed to my friend Jacqui’s challenge to read 15 Classics in 15 Weeks. I continue to press forward, this being number 12 of 15, and at this point 15 Classics in 15 Years seems quite doable…

Last week I finally finished Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy. This series came highly recommended by two trusted friends; the author, Sigrid Undset, was the daughter of Norwegian atheists, a Catholic convert, and a Nobel Prize winner. The books are tremendous, insightful, and often achingly beautiful.


However, these are not easy reads. Although written in the 20th century, my translation, at least, has a voice and vocabulary hearkening to the Middle Ages, with both Norwegian and Latin scattered throughout. The author’s knowledge and love of her country’s geography and culture shines throughout the books, but could overwhelm or disorient the reader.

It can also be challenging for a man to characterize or recommend these books to others — the covers of the edition I have (pictured above) do not inspire masculine interest, nor do the titles or cover summaries:

  • “Volume I, The Bridal Wreath, describes young Kristin’s stormy romance with the dashing Erlend Nikulasson, a young man perhaps overly fond of women, of whom her father strongly disapproves.”
  • “Volume II, The Mistress of Husaby, tells of Kristin’s troubled and eventful married life on the great estate of Husaby, to which her husband has taken her.”
  • “Volume III, The Cross, shows Kristin still indomitable, reconstructing her world after the devastation of the Black Death and the loss of almost everything that she has loved.”

That said, within the past month, The Catholic Gentleman website posted an article entitled, “Kristin Lavransdatter and Your Nordic Catholic Medieval Heart,” which makes a solid (if hyperbolic) case for why every Catholic man, at least, should read these books.* Men, take this as a challenge!

Now, without further ado, Three Things to Love about the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy:

  • Everyday Catholicism: This series is as Catholic as the day is long, although Catholicism is not what it’s “about.” I’ve never read a book in which Catholic prayers and blessings, sin and penance, were so effortlessly present and pervasive, reflecting the daily lives of the characters. If you want a glimpse into the everyday lives of the faithful during the Middle Ages, this is your ticket — this is what Christendom looked like.
  • Historical Fantasy: Although painstakingly researched and historically accurate, the style and storytelling recall great fairy tales and epic fantasy stories like The Lord of the Rings. High mountains and dark forests. Fertile valleys and fortified cities. Stories and visions of elves and trolls. Swordcraft and witchcraft. It’s all there for those brave enough to venture forth.
  • The Challenge of Marriage and Family: This, to me, is the real wealth of these tales. The story is told primarily, but not exclusively, through Kristin’s eyes, providing deep insight into love, marriage, masculinity, and motherhood from a woman’s perspective — but every character is richly drawn and complex, living with each other as best they can given their individual virtues and flaws, assumptions and knowledge. Even among those we love, there is so much we don’t know — which makes true love not as fleeting as feeling, but, ultimately, an act of the will.
I’ve got three more slots in my seemingly interminable quest to read 15 classics, and it has taken so long that my interests have changed. I think my final three books will be Dante’s Divine Comedy, Flannery O’Connor’s Collected Works, and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Not sure on the order yet — I’m reading something else in the interim!

* * * * *

The comments below the post also suggest that translations other than the one pictured, by Archer and Scott, may be better or easier reads.

Book Break, Feast of the Archangels Edition: Tobit’s Dog

For those of you who recall our wedding (or those who have heard Jodi and me speak at the engaged couples retreats around these parts), you may remember that the only detail I was specific about in the ceremony was the Old Testament reading, from the Book of Tobit, Chapter 8, verses 4-8. The back story, about the faithful but afflicted Tobit, his son Tobiah, a long-lost kinsman, and a cursed young bride, is retold in the novel Tobit’s Dog by Michael N. Richard.

Richard re-sets this ancient story as a mystery of sorts, set in the rural South during the Depression, and opens with a vignette of the titular canine visiting a local dump with his master, who is looking for discarded furniture to repair and sell. The dog is torn between the lure of his senses and the love of his master, but ultimately, chooses to follow and obey and is rewarded for it. It’s a compelling analogy to our relationship with God — but I was nervous: if the entire book were written in this way, it could be heavy-handed.

Thankfully, it isn’t. Instead, the opening scene sets the theme for the rest of the book, in which all of the major characters are conflicted in some way and are either moving toward their Master or further away.

Though the story is told in an easy and often humorous style, the subject matter is dark — the apparent mutilation and lynching of a teenage boy, rape and racism, and a tragic family cycle of alcoholism and abuse all figure into the tale, as does spiritual warfare as conducted by the old man’s unusual dog and a talented and world-wise traveling musician who may be Tobit’s cousin but doesn’t seem to be from “around here.”

It is a Catholic book, featuring Catholic characters living their Catholic faith, but you don’t have to be Catholic, or even Christian, to follow the tale or enjoy it — and in fact, nearly all of the characters find themselves questioning their faith and why bad things happen to good folks. As a bonus, for those who know the Book of Tobit or the three archangels named in Scripture and celebrated today, there is a strong connection between the book and today’s feast — but that’s probably more fun to uncover after the fact. As for the novel, I recommend it highly!